When is a Final not a Final?
No, this isn’t one of those cryptic riddles you find inside a Christmas cracker. Instead, due to the FA’s restructuring of our Non League pyramid, it’s a question which was being asked repeatedly inside Longmead this afternoon. Tonbridge Angels and Merstham were about to contest the Bostik Premier Division Playoff Final, but they did so knowing that, if they won, promotion wouldn’t automatically follow- they’d need to win another Final, next weekend. On that basis, although the trophy stated Final, the medals stated Final and the match was billed as a Final, was it a Final, or a Semi-Final?
The official answer is that it is a Final which will be followed by another Final. A Playoff Final followed by a Super Playoff Final. The record books will show that today’s victors were the Bostik Premier Division Playoff Winners, 2018/19. Whether the record books will then show that those winners attained promotion to National League South remains to be seen. Across England today a number of clubs in other leagues were contemplating the same question.
The Big Match!
Thank goodness it’s only for this year, eh?
Out two finalists today technically started the playoffs as the underdogs. Tonbridge Angels had to travel to third place Haringey Borough, Merstham to runners-up Carshalton Athletic, and both came away with two-one victories. Angels had lost their previous match at Coles Park four-nil, but managed to overcome any psychological advantage that might have given Borough, whilst Merstham had already beaten the Robins twice during the normal season, so making it a hat trick can’t have been too much of a shock. The earlier fixtures between the sides ended in a three-nil win for Angels at Moatside, and a one-nil victory for Merstham at Longmead. Merstham would undoubtedly be happy for history to repeat itself!
Our winners today didn’t know who they would have to take on in the Super Playoff Final, but they did have the options narrowed down to two- and they knew they’d have to travel. At the same time as our match kicked off, our former favourites Metropolitan Police would be entertaining Poole Town at Imber Court, and whoever won that match would host the next one. The Dolphins previously visited the boys in blue as recently as April 20th, winning 2-1- and given the previous match between them had been a 2-2 draw Poole were perhaps slight favourites. We might, on that basis, be off to the seaside next weekend- Poole would get to be the hosts despite having exactly the same points per game as both of our clubs due to having a better goal difference. If Met win, they will host due to having a superior point-per-game record.
Last season’s Met took only one point from Merstham, three points from Angels. This season’s side look to be a far trickier proposition, however, amassing seventy eight points and losing only twice at home. We know far less about Poole, although they have played five matches against Bostik League sides in the FA Cup and FA Trophy this season, defeating Horsham after a replay, beating Brentwood Town, but losing to Haringey Borough and Dorking Wanderers.
Anyway, that’s all for another day. Let’s get back to today’s match- which kicked off fifteen minutes late due to crowd congestion, surely meaning that Angels highest attendance this season of eight hundred and sixty one would be easily exceeded. There seemed to be around nine hundred just queuing for a burger at a quarter to three.
A pre-match huddle
The teams walked out to a great crescendo from the crowd and- for reasons which nobody could really explain- a disco rendition of “Take me home country roads.” The M25 can hardly be described as a country road, and the M3 and M27 don’t really qualify either, but that’s where the victors will end up next weekend. But which victors? It was time to find out. Angels got us underway.
In their last two matches Merstham had scored in the opening minutes. On this occasion, however, it was the home side doing the pressing, and Joe Turner, their leading scorer, had the first effort of the game in the fifth minute, his shot deflected for a corner. From the set piece Sonny Miles and Jake Hutchins crashed to the ground, and the home fans behind the goal yelled for a penalty, but the referee gave the decision the other way. Angels kept up the pressure, and this time it was Turner who went down in the box, but despite another animated roar from the terrace even the Angels forward didn’t really appeal for a decision. More pressure and another corner followed, and Amadou Tangara claimed and tried to give Merstham a moment of calm.
The Moatsiders then had a chance of their own, Fabio Saraiva firing a shot a yard outside of the near post. Before that Walter Figueira and Kershaney Samuels had combined well, giving the away fans something to shout about for the first time. The home fans, conversely, hadn’t stopped shouting for one moment, and they had more to shout about as Chinedu McKenzie got between two defenders to shoot, but his effort lacked power and Tangara was virtually untroubled.
As we entered the twentieth minute the match had been played mostly in the Merstham half, but we hadn’t yet had a clear-cut opportunity. Figueira for Merstham, however, was as always looking very good on the break, and another dangerous run from him saw him turn a defender inside out and fire into the side netting from a tight angle. The ball was soon back in the Moatsiders half, but again the away defence was resolute.
All along the watchtower
Merstham began to see more of the ball as we approached the half hour, but the match was turning into a bit of a midfield stalemate. The Moatsiders seemed to be set up to defend and then counter attack, and Angels seemed to be devoid of any idea how to break down that defence and, despite dominating possession, troubled by the pace of Figueira when they lost the ball. The crowd had quietened, mainly because there was little reason for them to be noisy. The match needed a spark, but there was no real sign of one. Tom Derry went into the book for a foul on Jake Hutchins, a decision which caused some angst amongst the home support but looked entirely correct.
And then Angels took the lead.
Turner got away down the left, and pulled the ball back to Derry. It wasn’t quite Derry time yet, as Tangara saved the strikers first-time shot, but the rebound fell to McKenzie who made no mistake, before celebrating with the crowd and then ending up at the bottom of a blue and white scrum. Merstham had eleven minutes before the break during which to respond.
Four minutes from the break, both sides were reduced to ten men, and it was both number fives who received their marching orders. It came out of very little. A dangerous moment in the Angels box, and after the ball went out for a corner there was a coming together of both defenders. One went to ground, and then there was a pushing match which appeared to be instigated by the Merstham man, but it ended in two red cards and both Sonny Miles and Oliver Cook headed to the changing room. Half time, one-nil and ten-ten. Whichever side got to the next Final, they’d both have a player suspended.
Angels fans in full voice
During the break, the announcer confirmed the attendance. Two thousand, two hundred and sixty eight. It’s no wonder the burger queue was so big! It was also confirmed that the red cards were fairly straight forward- apparently Miles stamped on Cook, who was sent off for retaliation. But given we haven’t yet seen the video, we shall add the word ‘allegedly,’ as if this was an episode of Have I Got News For You.
The first attempt of the second half came to Merstham, and, as expected, it was Figueira who had it. His shot was central, but so was Jon Henly, and the Angels keeper, an ever-present this season, held easily. The pace of the forward then earned the visitors a corner, Jack Parter forced to put the ball out under pressure. Another corner followed, as Figueira again tried to take on two defenders, one of whom poked the ball out of play. Angels then made the first change, Derry coming off for Joe Healy- an attacker for a defender. Derry had taken a knock in the first half, so it may not have been entirely tactical, but it looked rather like Steve McKimm was trying to hold what he had. We still had thirty five minutes to go.
The Moatsiders then made a change of their own, Ben Harrison going off for Michael Abnett- like for like, it seemed. “We’re the blue and white army,” sang the home fans, but in truth there was little happening that was worth singing about. It was rather a repeat of the first half, only with the protagonists in reverse; this time it was Merstham doing the probing, and Angels sitting firm and looking to counter.
Another Merstham change saw Tom Kavanagh go off and Dan Bennett join the fray in the sixty fifth minute, and some away pressure turned quickly into a home break which saw Turner fire a shot just past the far post. For all that the visitors were having most of the play, it was Angels who looked the most dangerous, Adem Ramadan having the next shot. Sadly for the midfielder it caused more danger to the Angels fans than it did to the Merstham goal.
Goalscorer Chinedu McKenzie, who had been ploughing a lone furrow up front, was replaced by Alex Read with seventeen minutes remaining; one striker for another. Merstham continued to dominate possession, passing the ball around prettily, but only forty yards from the Angels goal, which wasn’t likely to do them much good. Roman Michael-Percil joined the party with the aim of changing that. A mazy run at the right of the box almost immediately after coming on set up a shot for Simon Cooper, but it flew five yards wide.
With ten minutes to go Angels substituted the substitute. Read had picked up a knock, and Jared Small came on. News came through that at Imber Court, Met Police had defeated Poole Town by the only goal of the game, so we knew where we were going on Saturday. Merstham had eight minutes to change things if they were going to go with us. Gus Sow fired in a shot which Henly had to dive to his right to save, but that was the first time the Angels keeper had been troubled for more than half an hour, which told the story of the second half.
Jack Parter tried to make sure of the outcome. The left back advanced towards the Merstham goal and saw the defence do as his name almost suggested, parting and letting him continue. So he did, right into the box, and Tangara had to charge out and block his shot. We moved into the last four minutes, and Angels looked entirely comfortable. Mind you, we’d thought that about Heybridge Swifts this time yesterday!
Parter went on another run, and managed to find D’Sean Theobalds inside the box. Down he went, the crowd roared, and the referee…pointed to the spot. Turner, just named man of the match, made no mistake. As the clock ticked around to ninety minutes he slammed the ball home. Two-nil, and all doubt removed. Although the referee then added five minutes, which dampened the party going on behind Tangara’s goal just a little.
At the other end, Figueira saw a cross cleared as Daniel Bennett shaped to shoot, and then won a corner. The Moatsiders had awoken, but it was surely too late. Gus Sow tried a shot on the half volley, but it skewed wide of the goal as Henly watched on. A handful of Merstham fans couldn’t bring themselves to watch any more, and were serenaded with a chorus that suggested they were sneaking out. There wasn’t much sneaking, rather a steady stream towards the exit. The final whistle sounded, and the outcome, which in reality had looked assured for fifty five minutes, was decided.
Angels celebrated, but they knew they had another challenge to overcome. If they approach that challenge the way they approached today, they have to have every chance.